I'll tell you why pop culture critics are so bitter: We spend our lives swimming through oceans of crud, and when at last a sextuple Emmy Award–winning work of genius bobs up amid the flotsam, some suit sinks it. (Fox just announced there may be no more Arrested Development, now midway through its third season; this box set of season two came out last month.) But in a way, the prospect of imminent doom focused the minds of the show's brilliant writers and producers, emboldening them to do whatever the heck they wanted, in the manner of the Termite Terrace anarchists in the heyday of Warner Bros. cartoons, whose emotional development was arrested at the Terrible Twos. And the cast got even better adapting to the show's pace, perhaps the most frantically His Girl Friday–like rat-a-tat repartee in TV history. AD is like Soap strapped to a rocket sled, or maybe a defanged and deranged Sopranos.
Jason Bateman more or less stars as the least overtly crazy member of the Bluth clan, Michael, his face a symphony of suppressed exasperation as he strives to persuade his relatives to regain at least a modicum of their marbles. His dad (the lovably villainous Jeffrey Tambor), a Halliburtonesque corporate con man on the lam from prison, camps out in the attic—despite his air of canny calculation, he's bats in the belfry. His haughty old hottie of a mom (Jessica Walter) holds the purse strings of the family business, building shoddy model homes for Saddam Hussein and other suckers. Also, they run a mysterious banana snack stand. Michael's older brother Gob (Will Arnett), the world's most incompetent magician, magically makes money disappear when he seizes control of Bluth Enterprises. His mama's-boy kid brother Buster (Tony Hale) inadvisably joins the Army, while sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi, at last fulfilling her comedic potential) flings her lovely carcass at every passing man except the only one who'd have her—her husband Tobias (David Cross), an understudy for the Blue Man Group who paints himself blue and follows her around, hiding in front of all-blue Absolut posters.
Besides a core cast too numerous to enumerate here, Liza Minnelli and Martin Short do some of their career-best work during the sophomore season as a washed-up socialite inclined to eccentric liaisons and a decrepit bodybuilder. But the true stars are the writers, who nimbly pack in plenty of pointed in-jokes in the manner of The Simpsons in storylines that make Groening's show look poky and traditionalist. If you don't watch closely, or repeatedly, you'll miss lots of jokes—a snippet of the Charlie Brown Christmas theme when a character gets dejected, or a joke whose punch line depends on an obscure event in another AD episode.
The extras on this three-disc set are OK: cast and auteur audio commentaries on three of the 18 episodes, a few bloopers and deleted scenes, and a recap of the first season in three funny minutes (that would've been still funnier and more helpful if they'd made it six). It's also an indispensable guide to the on-hiatus season three. This DVD is a must-buy: it proves that AD is not dead—it has merely ceased to be mortal.
LATE NOVEMBER brings a slew of potential holiday-season gifts for DVD-philes (also see this week's Gift Guide for more suggestions). With Peter Jackson's King Kong remake opening Dec. 14, the original has been lavishly restored and packaged with other vintage Merion C. Cooper titles. (Jackson supporters may also get a kick out of the documentary Ringers: Lord of the Fans.) For that special fan, there's a five-disc Barbra Streisand box set of her TV specials that is fa- bulous. Family Guy Volume Three, Seinfeld seasons five and six, and the Cartoon Network's Home Movies: Season Three have a different appeal. Peter Watkins' hippies-versus-fascist-cops Punishment Park is a fascinating document of its time (1971). Criterion has a vault-quality edition of Kurasawa's Ran, Sky High bows, and The Polar Express reaches DVD. Look for the documentaries March of the Penguins, Murderball (a possible Oscar nominee), and A Dog's Life. Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and Mai Zetterling's 1965 Loving Couples might make an interesting home double feature. Geneon continues its budget price "Cinema Deluxe" series with more old titles like A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. And if you can't get enough of Brangelina at the supermarket checkout line, there's Mr. & Mrs. Smith.